Downtown St. Petersburg has changed radically in the 16 years since voters overwhelmingly chose to keep Albert Whitted Airport open on prime waterfront property. The Salvador Dali Museum has moved to what once was airport land, creating a downtown arts district. The University of South Florida St. Petersburg has blossomed as a true residential college with dorms. The new St. Petersburg Pier is slated to open next year. And the site of Tropicana Field is ripe for redevelopment. With that ongoing metamorphosis as a backdrop, the airport is putting together its first master plan in 15 years.
A key possibility is to lengthen the main runway, known as Runway 7-25, and perhaps shift it nearly a quarter mile to the east. The upsides: Such a change would move the "runway protection zone" — a three-dimensional cone — entirely on to airport property. If the zone shifted from the adjacent USF St. Petersburg, the campus could put up taller buildings. It also would enhance growth in the city's Innovation District, which includes not only the university but tech, health and science institutions like Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital and SRI International as well as the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times. The longer runway wouldn't change the kind of small jets that could use Albert Whitted, but it would allow them to carry more fuel for more range or more passengers. The downside: Extending the runway into Tampa Bay would require a dredge-and-fill operation with the accompanying environmental concerns, permitting and costs. It's a balancing act.
USF St. Petersburg likes the idea of the runway expansion, as does Mayor Rick Kriseman. His policy chief said the mayor "thinks the airport has the potential to catalyze future economic development."
In the city's long-running effort to bring a major headquarters to the downtown, giving corporate jets more flexibility to fly farther or carry more passengers while they operate a few blocks from a new corporate headquarters could be a selling point.
There are a lot of interlocking pieces on the waterfront, as illustrated by another of the tentative ideas: putting some new hangars on the now-closed wastewater treatment plant on airport land. Those tanks have 10 million gallons of emergency storage capacity, and City Hall is still working on a master plan for St. Petersburg's whole sewer system, with the memory of massive spills still fresh. No hangar plan could move forward until residents were assured that the wastewater system did not need that safety valve.
Another piece of the puzzle is the city's master plan for the waterfront. The airport should fit into the larger waterfront plan, but there is a ways to go. Now, the airport still cuts off the waterfront parks to the north from those to the south. The plans should create an inviting path to stroll or cycle from the new Pier around the airport past or through the USF St. Petersburg campus to the south. A narrow sidewalk next to a chain link fence is not welcoming.
Some creative thinking could solve this, similar to what has happened in the past 15 years. When the old Bayfront Center was torn down, the airport's boundaries moved to create space for the new Dali museum, and an old parking lot became the pleasant Albert Whitted Park on the water just north of the airport. The airport's new terminal includes a restaurant popular with the non-flying public. All these changes better integrated the airport into the city's public spaces. The same creative thinking that conceived of unpaving a lot — turning parking into a park — can find a way to link the park system pleasantly around the airport's perimeter.
One last dynamic is climate change, which will challenge St. Petersburg's waterfront. Any master plan that looks 20 years ahead must plan for seas that are rising.
One of the airport study's goals is to "enhance (Albert Whitted's) role as a gateway to the city" and another is to "secure broad community buy-in for the future development program." The airport master plan is months from completion, but the rough draft is off to a good start. The public should remain engaged in the entire process to ensure that the airport serves the aspirations of a rapidly changing city rather than risk becoming a relic of an earlier age.